Most of us grow up believing that Batman and Robin is the worst film of all time, a position reinforced by countless polls in magazines. It's only as our understanding of film grows that we come to realise that Joel Schumacher's Razzie-nominated magnum opus is not so much an abomination as a case of colossal misjudgement. Make no mistake, it's utter rubbish, but it's not the worst film ever made by quite some distance.
As with its processor, the best way to understand Batman and Robin is through the extent of Tim Burton's involvement. With Batman Forever, Burton stayed on as a producer; he still held some sway over the end result, in least in terms of ensuring some form of continuity between his vision and that of his replacement. But with this instalment Burton and his sense of direction are completely absent. The hefty box office of Forever, which surpassed that of Batman Returns, gave Schumacher a free rein with full studio backing - and he made a total pig's ear of it.
One of the arguments used to defend Batman and Robin is that the film was made too quickly. Warner Brothers wanted a rapid follow-up to Forever, hiring Schumacher in August 1996 and telling him to have the finished film ready to release in ten months. But Schumacher was used to shooting so quickly, averaging a film a year between 1993 and 1997. This is proved by his decision to film A Time to Kill instead of waiting on Warner Brothers, and by production on Batman and Robin wrapping two weeks early. Finally, though screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was officially hired in August, he and Schumacher had already worked out the story on the set of A Time to Kill.
The script of Batman and Robin is not so much a script as a list of awful one-liners. Amidst his inexplicable Oscar win for A Beautiful Mind, Goldsman has scripted such utter disasters as Lost in Space and The Da Vinci Code. There is one good line in the whole screenplay: it occurs in the museum when the guards and gassed, and one of them is heard to shout "Oh my lungs!".
The rest of the time the script is lazy, shoddy and devoid of any character development. The story itself is incredibly derivative, borrowing from action movie clichés as it sees fit. The final showdown involving satellites, lasers and sunlight is a straight lift from Diamonds are Forever or Goldeneye (sticking with the Bond theme, it could almost be called the inspiration for Die Another Day). The designs of Mr. Freeze's vehicles are a total rip-off of Mad Max, and there are passing nods to A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner which will make every seasoned film buff's blood boil.
Schumacher has always been a director concerned with style above everything else, often to the point that he has forgotten how to tell a story. John Glover, who plays the mad scientist, recalled that Schumacher would shout: "Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon" before every take, and Chris O'Donnell commented that the film resembled a toy commercial. If Batman Forever was like a dark nightclub that had been turned into a disco, Batman and Robin is like a night at Studio 54 populated by characters from The Care Bears or Barney the Dinosaur.
The problem with Schumacher's approach is not a problem with being light or camp in itself. There are many great action films within the camp style which still hold up - Flash Gordon, Planet of the Apes, even Mad Max to some extent. The problem is that this approach is force-fed to the audience, with every scene and action being played so far over-the-top that there is no room left for the ideas to be presented intelligently. This is reflected in the film's homoeroticism, present in everything from the bat-nipples and rubber asses to Poison Ivy's lair being in a Turkish bath. The problem is not homoeroticism in and of itself - it's that we are so repeatedly told to believe that Batman is gay that we never have a chance to think about what else might be going on.
The only times when Batman and Robin even slightly works are the conversations between Bruce and Alfred about the purpose of Batman. This is in itself an indictment of the film: the villains are so boring and obnoxious that the only character we care about is the butler. Michael Gough gamely trudges his way through lines about cancelling pizza and housekeeping, and actually manages, unlike the other actors, to have more than one facial expression. If nothing else, his efforts make for welcome if mawkish diversion from an unnecessary deluge of special effects.
Throughout the Batman saga, the films have always been at their weakest whenever the effects were allowed to dominate - think of the opening set-piece of Forever, the spinning Batmobile from Returns, even the chase scenes from the first film. But all of these niggles pale in comparison with Batman and Robin, which is all about the effects. From its opening set-pieces to its final scenes involving satellites directing sunlight, there is a reliance on CGI and digital trickery to such an extent that the characters become completely secondary.
This feeling of superfluity is reinforced by Schumacher's direction. It's all very well constructing ten-minute action scenes with a beginning, middle and end, but the editing has to complement the action to justify the length. Schumacher's editing is terrible - there is no sense or pacing, and his angles are constantly shifting so that you can't really see what's going on. Seeing Freeze and Batman surf down to Gotham might have worked had it been done in one take, but with a cut every few seconds it feels completely devoid of energy.
As far as the acting goes, it makes the characters in Rocky Horror look understated. Uma Thurman is so bad that she makes William Shatner seems naturalistic, while the gormless Alicia Silverstone thoroughly deserved her Razzie nomination. The problem with casting such seemingly glamorous women is that we only believe in them when they put the spandex on. Before their real self becomes the cover story, there's no way we can believe that Thurman is a bookish scientist, or Silverstone is a schoolgirl.
The male performers fare no better. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been the king of one-liners in his day, but even his best lines are repetitive, cheesy and can be seen coming a mile off. Every possible pun involving ice, snow or cold is used, to the point where the character has become a parody of itself. George Clooney, who has since disowned the film, walks around with air of a man who things staring into middle distance will somehow maintain his dignity. And Chris O'Donnell remains. unconvincing and spends most of his lines whinging.
When Sucker Punch was released, Mark Kermode observed that getting angry about the film's sexual politics was doing it a greater service than it deserved - the biggest reaction being sheer boredom above all else. In the case of Batman and Robin, there is so much to get angry about in terms of plot holes (why would Mr. Freeze hide in an ice-cream pub? Why would people not die from focussed sunlight? How come Bane can be defeated so easily? Etc.). But to get in a huff about these things, valid overlooks the most important and cynical aspect of the film.
The reason Batman and Robin's story is so terribly weak is that the film exists mostly if not wholly to sell merchandise. There is no reason for Batman, Robin and Batgirl to change costumes: it is only in the film so that kids have to buy two action figures rather than one. The same goes for all of Freeze's gadgets, Poison Ivy's hairstyles, and the infamous Bat credit card, which takes jumping the shark to a whole new level.
Batman and Robin is the point where bad movies end and terrible movies begin. It's easily the worst film of the Burton-Schumacher era, ignoring all that was right about Burton's efforts and extrapolating all that was wrong with Batman Forever. Its reputation as one of the worst films of all time is such that to kick it when it so far down feels almost cruel. But suffice to say, the franchise needed a good eight years to recover before the arrival of a dark knight in shining armour.